Into the vibe

Sunday, 19 February 2017 10:00

Why the F-F range?

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If you look at 95% of the vibraphones you see a weird thing. 
A thing I don't understand from a musical point of view, but a thing I do understand from a historical and technical point. When  I talk to vibists, they say they can work fine with it. I think, it is like working with old 2.1Mpixel cameras instead of using the latest resolution and wide color depth currently possible.

I am talking about the strange 3 octaves range from F3-F6.

Originally I come from an organ background, started learn playing on a 2x 3.5 octaves keyboard. Guess what: I could work fine with it, and accepted. Untill I switched to a 2x 5 octaves keyboard: wow, that opened up to a lot of possibilities.

It took me a long time to realize why the weird F3-F6 range. I can understand a range C-C, but F-F??? Looking at the market and the history, I started to understand what was going on. 

It is a technical-historical reason. 

Striking a vibraphone bar, you're not triggering one single tone, but a bunch of tones/harmonics. The lowest one is (mostly) the most noticable tone, yet you also hear the higher harmonics/partials/modes . The higher you go in the range, the less noticable the higher harmonics will be. Yet, the lower you go, the more noticable these higher harmonics become, many times becoming more prominent than the base tone.
At the time the vibraphone was invented, manufacturers were able to only tune the base note. Going down in range, meant getting bars with too prominent overtones that didn't musically match the note. Later tuners learned to also tune a 2nd harmonic (double octave).
This allowed them to go down to F3. However, lower than F3 was not possible with just this 2nd harmonic tuned, as the bar would not sound good.

Manufacturers not offering ranges starting below this F3, meant vibists accepted and learned to use the offered range, not realizing this range acctually is weird and unnecessary, even accepting the range F3-F6 to be the standard. And who can blame them. The vibraphone is not a widely spread instrument, and most vibraphone players see and play maybe 2 brands in their life, so when and where do they even get the opportunity to learn more about the instrument? Don't shoot me, but I found that almost no vibist knows enough about the instrument itself, so it is obvious that they accept what manufacturers offers and many times are not capable of telling a manufacturer what they want. At the same time, I see too many manufacturers not understanding the instrument either, thinking it is just marimba with metal bars and a dampersystem. These manufacturers ask vibists what they want and they build it the way they are told the customer wants it. Result is that there is not much progress in the design of the vibraphone (no matter what manufacturers want to let you be believe).

When I started building vibraphones, I asked vibists how a vibraphone had to be. Their answer always was this:

  • it has to be 3 octaves from F3-F6

  • it has to have a small width pedal

  • the motorcontrol has to be on the player-facing rail on the right

  • the legs have to fold under the keybed when travelling

  • keybed has to be black

  • frame has to be black

  • instrument has to be lightweight

Sounds familiar? If I would have built a vibraphone like this, what vibe would I have made? 
It didn't take long for me to realize, I didn't want to build that kind of vibraphone, as it will not bring the vibraphone to where it has to be.

I started tuning more harmonics, making it possible to really get good sounding bars below F3. At the same time, looking at the environments the vibraphone is used (modern music, jazz), I noticed we need at least to have a range starting at E3 (guitar), better at D#3 (tenor/horns), but best at C3. This resulted in becoming a specialist in extended range vibraphones.

Tuning more harmonics, so making good sounding low bars, does require a lot of experience, and does require spending a lot of time on tuning a bar. I regret to see that many manufacturers don't accept taking that time to learn going down to ranges that are more fitting to the vibist.
I hope this will change in future. In my personal opinion, a manufacturer offering only a 3 octaves vibraphone, doesn't understand the instrument and is not bringing the vibraphone to the level it can be as an instrument.

Stay tuned...

Read 2088 times Last modified on Friday, 29 December 2017 07:25